Many people think treadmills are a relatively new form of exercise equipment. The modern treadmill, with its electric motor, conveyor belt and computer console, is definitely a new development historically speaking. However, the term treadmill formerly described something very different.


Treadwheel exampleThe term treadmill was once used interchangeably with treadwheel. You may have heard of a treadwheel before. Pictured to the right, these were once used as power sources. (image courtesty of www.hirab.co.uk)

They were really more like ancient stair steppers. A person would start pushing the flaps down and causing the wheel to turn. As they kept walking in place and pushing the flaps around, the wheel would continue to turn. The resulting force was used as a source of power which in turn was utilized for raising water, construction and other tasks. History Today has an excellent article if you want to learn more in depth about how the treadwheel was used.

The interesting thing is that not only was the treadwheel used to aid in powering certain tasks, those who powered the treadwheel were often being punished. It wasn’t uncommon to see a treadwheel filled with prisoners. The practice of using ancient treadmills or treadwheels for power and punishment originated thousands of years ago. We have great historical records of the Romans and Greeks both using treadwheel technology to build edifices or raise water. Steven Vogel, Research Professor at Duke University, explained some of the early origins of muscle-powered machines in “A Short History Of Muscle Powered Machines.”

The University of Illinois at Chicago also has an interesting piece about the histories and precedents of early versions of the treadmill. These two articles clearly lay out for us the history of machines like the treadwheel.

The earliest designs of these machines had three major designs. The oldest design was basically a horizontal bar coming out of a vertical shaft. The shaft could be turned by pushing the bar or attaching it to an animal. By going in circles, the shaft could be rotated. The second design was more of a vertical wheel, like a hamster wheel. A person could go inside the wheel and rotate it by climbing rather than walking in circles. This was like a waterwheel only a person essentially replaced the water. The third design used a moving sloped platform and is really the ancestor to our modern treadmill.

When it came to constructing new buildings, ancient Romans used a version of a treadmill called a treadwheel crane. This technology was infinitely more efficient than how the Egyptians built the pyramids, capable of lifting 3000 kg per person! After Rome, the treadwheel reappears in history in the 1200’s, although how it was reintroduced as technology to aid in construction is unclear. But it appears in France, Germany, England and elsewhere. And more recently, Sariel created a LEGO model of the ancient roman treadwheel crane.

From Project Gutenberg we see this and other ebooks with relevant examples of literature mentioning the treadwheel. Here are a few examples:

“The provisions for the fortress are brought in up an inclined plane, and raised by means of a tread-wheel, formerly worked by the prisoners.”

“On the towers of the four prison wings there are reservoirs for containing water, which is thrown up by a pump worked by the prisoners at the tread-wheel, whenever water is required, and by means of lead pipes, it is then conveyed to every part of the prison.”

“The tread-wheel is usually worked by two men or women, who steady themselves by holding to a cross-bar, while their weight revolves the tread-wheel and works a chain of water-pockets.”

The earliest uses of the treadmill, or treadwheel, are well documented. As a power source they were used to construct buildings and move water. As a punishment they were used in prisons. Today we make a distinction between these ancient treadmills by calling them simply treadwheels and our modern exercise equipment a treadmill. But it’s always interesting to learn a bit about the history of anything, and not many know of the ancient origins of the treadmill or what the machines that word once described.

About The Author

Treadmill Review Guru is an expert on all things related to treadmills and running. He is a former cross country runner and soccer player and hopes to soon be able to run a marathon. He loves training on his treadmill whenever he gets the chance. Check out his recommendations and see what he thinks are the best treadmills.